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Building Bioregional Politics for an Ecological Civilization

Interview Part 1

By Richard Evanoff, Evan O'Neil | August 3, 2012

CREDIT: Steve Dunleavy (CC).

Richard Evanoff, professor of environmental ethics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan, recently wrote the book Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-being. I corresponded with him on the concepts and applications of bioregionalism, a movement with roots in the ecopolitics of the 1970s, and how it might be useful in turning toward an ecological civilization today. The interview will appear in three parts.

EVAN O'NEIL: Richard, to start off: What defines a bioregion?

RICHARD EVANOFF: The word bioregion simply means "life-place." Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann use the term bioregion to refer to a "geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place." Kirkpatrick Sale distinguishes bioregions on the basis of "particular attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils, and landforms, and by the human settlements and cultures those attributes have given rise to." Personally I prefer the term biocultural region, which designates a local geographic area in which specific human cultures develop in relation to the natural ecosystems they inhabit.

EVAN O'NEIL: Is there an ideal bioregional relation between wild spaces and cultivated, human landscapes?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Bioregionalism is consistent with preserving wilderness areas that are relatively free from human interference, while simultaneously acknowledging that there will be other areas in which human cultures and natural ecosystems interact and coexist with each other. Berg distinguishes between "different zones of human interface with natural systems: urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness, [each of which] has a different reinhabitory approach." The key word is reinhabitation, which means finding ways of living that maintain rather than plunder local ecosystems, and that respect rather than destroy biodiversity.

EVAN O'NEIL: Has a phenomenology of bioregionalism been articulated?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Reinhabitation involves not just living in a place, but also having a "sense of place." In a bioregional context, people are aware of where their water, food, and other essential goods come from. They know the land, and are as acquainted with the local flora and fauna as they are with their neighbors. They develop ethical relationships not only with their fellow community members but also with the landscapes they inhabit. They are familiar with the lore, and with how relations between human cultures and the local environment have developed historically. They care about what happens to the natural and built environments they live in, both in the present and in the future.

EVAN O'NEIL: What does human community look like from a bioregional perspective? Are there typical forms of political organization that accompany it?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Human communities would be organized in a way that allows individuals to satisfy most of their economic, social, and cultural needs within the local area. Political decision-making would be carried out within the local community, although there are a variety of different forms that this could take, depending on the particular cultures involved. An updated version of the traditional town meetings of New England provides one model for local democratic decision-making in a North American context, for example.

Bioregionalism is consistent with a political position that is "neither right nor left but straight ahead." It agrees with conservatives that political power should be devolved away from national governments and remain in the hands of citizens themselves on a purely democratic basis. It goes much further than libertarians, however, in suggesting that economic power should also be devolved away from investors and corporations so that the people who are actually doing the work have both ownership and control over the companies they work for. It should be noted that cooperatives and worker-owned and -managed enterprises are based on private ownership (that is, ownership by the workers themselves), and are thus completely different from Marxist-inspired, government-controlled collectives.

In many ways the bioregional political orientation harks back to Jeffersonian agrarianism: wealth and power should be spread widely.

With liberals, bioregionalism agrees that people should maintain democratic political control over the economy rather than rely on unregulated free markets. There is nothing wrong with regulation, provided that it is implemented on the basis of a genuinely democratic decision-making process controlled by citizens and not by "big government" politicians who presume to represent them. Political freedom based on the democratic principle of one-person, one-vote trumps economic freedom based on the market principle of one-dollar, one-vote.

In many ways the bioregional political orientation harks back to Jeffersonian agrarianism, based on the notion that democracy is only possible when both political power and economic wealth are widely spread throughout society. Jefferson's vision is quite different, of course, from the current situation in which wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a small minority of elites, while the role of citizens is reduced to choosing which of those elites will "represent" them in office.

Given its emphasis on promoting self-reliance at the individual and community level, rather than reliance on government, bioregionalism also has affinities with some aspects of social libertarian, anarchist, and ecofeminist political thought.

EVAN O'NEIL: Your recent book looks at bioregionalism and global ethics. What is the connection? Are there global ethical principles that guide bioregionalism?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Taking the second question first, it might be better to reframe it as What contribution might bioregionalism make to cross-cultural dialogue on a global ethic? My book develops a constructivist approach to ethics, which suggests that ethics is not so much a matter of attempting to formulate foundational ethical principles that can be universally applied, but rather a process of inclusive dialogue in which people from different cultures and ethical traditions attempt to agree on the norms that will govern relations between them and between themselves and the biosphere. To the extent that their actions have no effect beyond their own local sphere, local cultures and traditions are perfectly capable of devising their own specific norms for dealing with relationships among their own people, and between those people and the land they inhabit.

When actions affect others outside the local community, however, it then becomes necessary for the parties to engage in constructive dialogue to determine how relations between them will be conducted. In our present situation, dialogue about global economic and political relations is often conducted in a way that excludes the participation of those who are most affected by the decisions which are made (for example, the decision to close a factory and move its operations overseas; the decision to build a dam that floods land inhabited by local farmers; the decision to implement free trade agreements that are more advantageous to multinational enterprises than to local producers). At present, decisions are often made at the "top" (by governments, corporations, and international institutions, for example), while those at the "bottom" typically lack the power and influence to accept, modify, or reject those decisions.

What contribution might bioregionalism make to cross-cultural dialogue on a global ethic?

Following the ideas of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and democratic theory in general, my book argues that decisions cannot be considered justified unless they are made on the basis of an inclusive dialogue in which all of those who are affected by the result of a decision have the opportunity to participate in the process by which that decision is reached.

With regard to the first question, in a similar spirit of cross-cultural dialogue, my book proposes that a global ethic should minimally concern itself with three goals: "(1) promoting ecological sustainability in degrees sufficient to allow both human and nonhuman life to thrive; (2) achieving social justice both within and between cultures; and (3) maximizing human well-being in the sense of providing both for the material needs of individuals and for their full psychological, social, and cultural development."

The book then argues that the current "dominant development paradigm"—based on universalizing the model of industrialization and consumerism found in so-called "developed" countries—is unable to meet these goals. The dominant development paradigm is unsustainable because the Earth simply does not have the resources to enable everyone on the planet to enjoy the same high levels of material affluence found in developed countries; moreover, the attempt to continue pursuing high levels of economic growth, even in developed countries, ultimately leads to social and environmental collapse.

The dominant development paradigm is socially unjust because it allows the top 20 percent of the Earth's population to consume 80 percent of available resources, while the bottom 80 percent has access to only 20 percent; moreover, such inequalities are in part the result of a global system that has been intentionally designed to shift resources from poor to rich. The dominant development paradigm is unable to maximize human well-being because it reduces people to consumers, while ignoring their other psychological, social and cultural needs.

The book then develops an alternative bioregional paradigm that is able to meet each of the three goals by acknowledging that there are limits to economic growth, which means that social justice can be achieved not by helping so-called "developing" countries catch up with developed countries, but only by providing for equitable access to resources. The bioregional paradigm does not involve transferring wealth or technology from developed to developing countries, but instead advocates "delinking" the two so that resources do not continue to flow from poor to rich.

The industrial-consumerist model of development is replaced in the bioregional paradigm by a more equitable form of development.

The developed countries need to learn to live more sustainably within the confines of the local resources available to them rather than exploiting the resources of others. Developing countries would then have full access to their own local resources as the basis for developing their own sustainable economies. The industrial-consumerist model of development is replaced in the bioregional paradigm by a more equitable form of development that is able to satisfy the full range of basic human needs in ecologically sustainable ways.

The idea of transferring vast amounts of wealth and technology from developed to developing countries only makes sense in the context of a development paradigm that aims at industrialization and consumerism. In fact such transfers often benefit only a small minority of people in developing countries, while actually worsening the situation of the poor. A lot of money is needed, for example, to build the dam that supplies the electricity to power the factory that produces goods for export on the global market. But how do the people whose homes and farms have been flooded by the dam, and who must start over in new, often poorer locations, benefit from such projects?

Achieving basic human well-being in ecologically sustainable and self-sufficient ways does not require a lot of money, and it destroys neither local livelihoods nor local environments.

SEE ALSO:   PART 2   |   PART 3

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